A true blue birderA local duo walks the golf course once a week to help restore the bluebird population.
By: Hank Long, Woodbury Bulletin
Once a week from April to October John Rys and Roger Adams will meet up at Tartan Park Golf Course in Lake Elmo, usually before the first tee time is even scheduled.
The pair covers the course via golf cart in a few hours, but they never bring their clubs. Because they’re not golfing. They’re birding. Bluebirding to be exact.
For the better part of the last 12 years, Rys, a Woodbury resident, has been doing his fair share to help restore the eastern bluebird population that has been on the decline in Minnesota. About five years ago he recruited Adams, of Hudson, to help him.
Together the pair monitors 46 bluebird nesting houses they have installed, sprinkled throughout the golf course.
Golf courses are ideal habitat for bluebirds, Rys said.
“The grass is short, and bluebirds tend to worms and insects, so it serves as a good place to do a project like this.”
Recently, Rys achieved a milestone in helping to fledge his 1,000th bluebird at Tartan Park.
The mark is significant because over the last several decades the eastern bluebird population has diminished across the country, including in Minnesota. A large part of the decreased population, Rys said, is due to habitat loss, associated with a shrinking field habitat and clearing of dead trees to make way for development.
But over the last two decades several state chapters of the Eastern Bluebird Recovery Program have developed. The chapter in Minnesota is affiliated with the Minneapolis Chapter of the Audubon Society and has kept track of the number of fledgings across the state each year.
Volunteers across the state, like Rys and Adams, install bluebird houses they then monitor throughout the course of the spring, summer and fall.
Developing a habitat
The key to successful bluebird fledging, Rys said, is finding the precise location and then working to keep predators, like raccoons and wrens, out of the bluebird houses. Monitoring the houses at least once a week is crucial, Rys said.
“Wrens are very territorial” Rys said. “They don’t want any other bird near their nesting habitat. A lot of times they will puncture bluebird eggs if they get the chance. Then all you can do is move the house to a different location.”
Tree swallows also tend to nest in some of the houses Rys and Adams set up for the bluebirds. But Adams said he and Rys have figured out that if they place two houses in one location, the tree swallows will occupy one of the houses and the bluebirds will take the other.
“The bluebirds are kind of a shy species, so they let the swallows go first,” Adams said.
Bluebirds hatch two broods a season. At Tartan Park, Rys has observed they lay their first eggs in late April and once in mid-June.
Rys, a retired 3Mer, works part-time as a starter at Prestwick Golf Course, where he has set up about a dozen bluebird houses. He said golfers have noticed the arrival of bluebirds over the years since he installed the houses. One of those golfers, Prestwick Club pro Steve Sandberg, who considers himself a bird enthusiast, said Rys’s contributions have been noticed.
“John does a lot of volunteer work and it’s fun to see the results of his efforts and spot the bluebirds around the course,” Sandberg said.
Stumbling into a hobby
Rys said he first became involved with bluebird restoration by accident. A woman he served with on a 3M water management committee was doing bluebird monitoring in the area and asked him for help. From there Rys picked it up as a hobby of his own.
“I’ve never really considered myself a birder,” he said, “But I’ve come to really enjoy the bluebird.”
“They have that beautiful bright blue color, and the males have the bright red and white breast. It’s just a striking bird. It’s fun to see more and more come to the course each year.”
Adams said although the effort that volunteers like he and Rys have put in over the years has had a positive effect on the bluebird population, there is still work to be done.
“It remains a challenge,” Adams said. “The bluebird is a beautiful bird, but it’s also a vulnerable bird, because of the predators and because of the sensitivities to habitat.”
Rys enjoys taking in the crossroads of nature and man that is a golf course.
“It’s just a real neat thing to do,” he said. “You get up early in the morning, get out on the course and it’s a serene atmosphere. You’ll see bluebirds, wild turkeys, all sorts of wildlife; it’s just a very pleasant environment.”